Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Donald Sterling And Racism In America....

.....And Why Asians Have Nothing To Answer For.

There is an article in Slate that has been making the rounds written by a couple of Asian-Americans on the recent furore over Clippers' owner Donald Sterling's racist remarks about African-Americans. The piece parses the bigger picture of Sterling's racist attitudes and does a good job of contextualizing his supposed "love" of Koreans as merely another way of expressing a racialized and racist way of thinking.

As one might expect, the article goes to great pains to highlight the idea of the Model Minority myth as a cause of this way of thinking, noting that racism is not always - in fact is never - only about hatred, but can be expressed even as one expresses love and admiration.
While it’s not quite on par with degrading other minorities as lazy or filthy, Sterling’s praise for his hardworking Korean tenants and the “Asian way” reveals how racism can be a collection of contradictory impulses. Love and hate, praise and condescension—they are all engines of exploitation.
Oddly enough, this notion of racism being expressed through love is not new, and was most eloquently described by none other than Frank Chin - the largely marginalized and under-appreciated Chinese-American writer - whose brutal directness and unwillingness to compromise on historical and cultural truths has made him an anathema to the far more prominent historical revisionists within Asian-America. Personally, I like the guy. Way back in 1972, Chin wrote a piece called "Racist Love" that encapsulates with great eloquence and directness this idea that racism does not necessarily thrive on hatred alone, but is just as equally upheld by "love". Read it and weep.

Of course, the Slate piece should be read as a refutation of the idea that the "model minority" is a positive thing, and in that regard I wholeheartedly agree. What I find problematic about the piece - and about Asian-American commentary on the model minority stereotype as a whole - is that we always fail to point out the most uncomfortable truth about it. When Asian-Americans talk about the model minority the usual trope is that the stereotype upholds the idea that racism can be overcome through hard work as proven by Asian "success", whilst simultaneously faulting other minorities - black and Hispanic - for not doing the same. The story goes that since Asians - supposedly - don't complain about racism and just put their heads down and "get on with it" that this is a good model of behaviour for all minorities to follow - hence Asians are the "model minority". In other words, the stereotype implicitly and explicitly justifies racist attitudes towards blacks and Hispanics by blaming them and not racism for their inability to succeed.

The typical Asian response - naturally, perhaps - is to decry the stereotype for its racist love and for its detrimental effects on other minorities, criticize Asians who "embrace" the stereotype, and most significantly of all, to criticize Asians who might embrace the stereotype or simply fail to speak out against it. The reasoning goes that Asians who embrace or are silent about the stereotype are implicitly upholding white racism and in return are given "privileged" status or simply given just "privilege". I have written about this notion of Asian model minority privilege elsewhere, but the story goes that by participating in white supremacy - that is, by accepting privileges (often unspecified by critics) that enable Asians to "prosper" - and not challenging the structures that uphold it (presumably by quitting college or jobs, perhaps?), Asians are being complicit in anti-black/anti-Hispanic white supremacist racism. As the article notes....
The housing case brought against Sterling in 2003 includes black, Latino, and white plaintiffs but no Korean-Americans. We have not been able to find prominent public complaints against Sterling by any Asian-American individuals or groups. There are also troubling stories of Sterling at one point replacing his security team with “Korean-born guards who were hostile to non-Koreans.”
Although there is no explicit criticism of Asian-Americans in the piece for not speaking out against Sterling's long list of racially demeaning statements and activities, pointing out that Asians have not made any substantial complaints about him is, to me, an implicit observation on supposed Asian "passivity" when it comes to speaking out about racism directed at both Asians and non-Asians alike. As other prominent bloggers have suggested, because Asian privilege is - supposedly - unique in that we are afforded opportunities to prosper not given to other minorities, then we are uniquely required to be more vocal about racism.

This way of thinking leaves us with a substantial elephant in the room. As I pointed out in  my other model minority post, if it is true that to succeed requires complicity with white supremacy, then it must also be true that for any minority to succeed, they have to also be complicit with white supremacy and, in fact, many non-Asian minorities do succeed. In fact the Sterling case is an awkward illustration of this notion in action. Although Sterling has a long history of expressing racist opinions and enacting racist policies in his work, and although lawsuits have been brought against him by aggrieved parties, the fact is that for at least the two plus decades that Sterling has been expressing racially charged opinions and discriminating against blacks and Hispanics, there has been - as far as I know - almost no complaints or activism from black or Hispanic employees within his Clippers organization about his prejudices.

That is, aside from the most recent on-court, pre-game, "protest" by Clippers players against Sterling's most recent transgression, the black players, coaches, and whatever black support staff he employs, have been largely silent in challenging Sterling's prejudices which have been out in the open for years. In other words, they have been guilty of "model minority" behaviour - accepting the status quo in exchange for "privileges" and the opportunity to prosper. I am not criticizing the apparent passivity of black employees of the Clippers organization here, but merely pointing out that speaking out against structural racism is far more complex and difficult to do than merely following a set of college-learned ideals and imposing that set of ideals on real people in the real world (with families to support and children to feed) and finding imperfection in those people because they have to make real-world choices.

Clearly, Asians are not alone when it comes to keeping quiet and keeping their heads down instead of confronting racism head-on, the only difference is that  whereas blacks and Hispanics have a strong cultural and social voice, Asians have a weak cultural, social, and political, presence and it is, thus, easy to label us and make it stick. As I have shown, no-one is faulting black Clippers employees for their years of apparent silence over Sterling's racism.

But even the idea that Asians don't speak out about racism is clearly false. Blogs like my own, and even other Asian bloggers whose focus is not the racial experience include commentary and speak out about racism. Often, in the aftermath of yet another racist media slight, Asian journalists or writers will post articles in mainstream publications speaking out about racism. So why we have this idea that Asian don't speak out about racism I don't know because clearly, we do. But this perception itself illustrates just how excluded Asians are from the processes by which perceptions of us are formed. Despite the fact that Asians regularly speak out about racism, the wider perception is that we don't, which is probably because the images and statements that are  given the most gravity are made or created by non-Asians, often relying on formulaic and derogatory conceptions of Asian people, and who have the full power of the media apparatus at their disposal. All of this means that to buy  into the idea that Asians don't speak out about racism is to in some ways hold Asians responsible for their own exclusion and invisibility in mainstream culture. Even worse, to suggest that Asians are uniquely and specifically more disinclined to challenge racism's structures is merely more stereotyping.

Asians have very little to no control over America's race dialogue on Asians - this is a simple fact. That is why it is important that we refrain from an intra-community dialogue that over-simplifies our race experience and our responses to it. As the Sterling case has shown, any and all minorities once integrated economically into the system will overlook racial indignities and transgressions committed by the white power structures - Asians are not alone in that.
But the ultimate beneficiaries of this racial typecasting are the people who invoke the model as a bludgeon against others. Sterling’s admiration for his Korean tenants is actually a kind of scorn. After all, he still subjected Korean tenants to the same degrading treatment as everyone else—the only difference is that the Koreans seemed willing to take it.
That final sentence seems to be trying too hard and does not specify how Sterling's behaviour was degrading to Koreans, but it illustrates my points clearly. Nothing I have read anywhere says that Sterling degraded the Koreans, just like black players and staff at the Clipper's organization were not personally degraded (as far as I know) by him. Perhaps if there had been incidences of personal degradation the Koreans might have reacted, just like the black employees at the Clipper's organization might have reacted if they had experienced personal degradation - they certainly did not seem motivated to to speak out or protest on behalf of the victims of housing discriminatioın in Sterling's rental properties. The point is, that all minorities act the same when they become economically integrated, suggesting that expecting such economically integrated people to approach anti-racist activism like Malcolm X might not yield the desired results, or even be the desired approach.

The real damage here, though, is to suggest that there is something uniquely Asian about not speaking up against discrimination when they are not directly, or personally, affected by it. Clearly, all minorities who have achieved some degree of economic integration for one reason of another will not challenge discrimination unless they are personally affected by it - the Clipper's employees illustrate this. By implying that this is a uniquely Asian phenomenon is simply incorrect and only serves to deflect the dialogue away from any meaningful attempt to find a course of action that empowers minorities - not just the Asian ones - to embrace their economic success or integration, whilst challenging discrimination from within.

Pointing the finger at Asians only allows the very significant fact to go unnoticed that almost no minority groups who stand to lose what little piece of economic advantage they have attained will rarely jeopardize it to stand up for ati-racist ideals. This notion is too simplistic on top of being wrong - much like the kind of stereotyping we are targeted with - and in order to improve the Asian-American cultural, social and political footprint we need to offer dialogue about ourselves that is primarily accurate, and nuanced.


  1. It's terrible that people would imply not speaking out is supporting his racism and not a symptom of the racism that shuts down and marginalizes Asian American voices. Feels like people just want to reinforce the stereotype that Asians are racist, particularly against other minorities. We still need to step up though. There seems to be a lack of trust, faith, and a disconnect particularly between first generation Asians, second generation, and Asian groups like in here:

    "Asians have very little to no control over America's race dialogue on Asians - this is a simple fact."
    Honestly feels like most mainstream "Asian" things in America are made by and for white people. Maybe a few books and youtube channels like Wongfu, but that is internet famous, not real famous.

    1. Anonymous

      Just to be clear, I do think that not speaking is in some ways enabling racism, the issue is that Asians are unfairly singled out as culprits when - as I wrote in the post - few minorities who have become economically integrated will make a stand against racism or its structures if they are not personally affected.

      I agree that we need to step up, but the current narrative that Asian-activists seem to want to tell that Asians - unlike other minorities - are passive, don't speak out about racism, or are being cavalier in their enjoyment of their "privilege", just doesn't reflect the reality which is that it is difficult to live by ideals when you have something to lose.

      All minorities for the most part fail in this regard.

  2. The degree of economic power that somebody like Sterling wields--not perceived Asian cultural attitudes--should be the focus. Yet we're always blamed for these deeper social problems.